There are many naysayers to government agencies monitoring social media and having an active presence on social channels such as Facebook and Twitter. In blog posts, forums and on Twitter feeds, those opposed to the government’s growing use of social media cite privacy concerns and a waste of taxpayer money. But consider the important potential of government having a dedicated listening, communication and response presence on these channels.
Last year, when the Washington, DC area experienced a rare 5.8 magnitude earthquake, hundreds of thousands of people quickly evacuated their office buildings, most carrying only their phones, and gathered in parking lots and other open outdoor spaces. Because the DC area rarely experiences an earthquake, in the first moments, many speculated that the event may be a terrorist attack. I and everyone around me immediately attempted to call out to see if friends and family were alright, but most calls would not go through for the next hour due to the incredibly high usage volume.
So where did the greater DC area turn for information and to communicate what was happening to them and those in their area? Facebook and Twitter. Even though no one was able to use their phones to make calls, they were still able to access social media. Immediately following the East Coast quake, the term “earthquake” appeared in the Facebook status updates of nearly 3 million U.S. users. Within one minute following the event, there were 40,000 earthquake-related tweets.
Social media has an incredible potential for government use, not just to provide more responsive service, support and communication to the public in everyday situations, but to serve as a significant communication and crisis management tool for agencies large and small. Social media, with the right management tools behind it, can be used to disseminate information in real time to millions of people, to monitor conversations and updates related to major events and natural disasters, to acquire and act on information from those on the scene, and to provide information during and following an event on where to find shelter, assistance and ongoing aid.
Georgetown University Adjunct Professor, Andrew Einhorn, wrote in a recent blog, “If social media were a viable resource during 9/11 and the government was monitoring social media channels, perhaps Americans would have been more prepared and armed with information to help them stay safe in the unfolding crisis. The same may be true for (Hurricane) Katrina…”
An Emerging Tool with Incredible Potential
Though it seems like social media has been a pervasive part of daily life for quite some time, it really hasn’t been around all that long. Twitter didn’t emerge until 2006. Facebook didn’t begin to take off with the general public until 2009/2010.
In 2008, only 29% of adult internet users said they used a social networking site. Now, according to Pew Research, the number is well above 65%.
Many government agencies are starting to do a good job of beginning to organize and utilize social media as part of an integrated service, support and communications strategy. To those who worry about the negatives often associated with government’s growing presence on social media, we must also consider its tremendous possibilities.
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